It’s been over a year since my last post on query letters, and frankly, after writing four different posts on the topic, I didn’t think I had anything else to say. After all, the basics of query letter writing don’t change much, mainly because its purpose hasn’t changed. You’re writing a one-page letter to persuade an editor that your manuscript is worth looking at.
However, it has come to my attention that there are still things to address. As I’ve said before, there are two basic types of query letter, the extremely brief elevator-pitch query and the slightly longer one that tries to sum up the plot in two or three short paragraphs. I’ve done a break-it-down-and-rebuild-it post on the two-to-three-paragraph version, but I never got around to doing the same thing for the short version. So here’s the starting example:
I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a hilarious romp through an improbable future in which a manic grad student and a purple monkey pull out all the stops to defeat the Evil Overlord. It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart as the two unlikely heroes confront their all-too-human flaws, part Igraine Hughes and part Carlos Merriwether III with just a hint of the third season of the “Five Guys Pretending To Be Marooned On A Desert Island” reality show and a soupcon of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. I myself have a Ph.d. in history, and I can assure you that all of the historical references are perfectly accurate. Would you be interested in looking at it?
Sincerely, The Writer
This query starts off very well, with the mention that the novel is finished, the word count, and the title, but as soon as it starts trying to actually describe the story, it falls apart. Why? Because this author decided that the only way to keep the description short was also to leave out most of the specifics and instead try to describe what they think the story is like. She doesn’t even provide the name of the main character.
You know all those writing rules, especially the one about showing instead of telling? This is where you use them. You don’t say “this is a hilarious romp through an improbable future,” “they pull out all the stops,” or “It’s a suspense-filled drama with darkness at its heart…” There is almost no actual information in any of those phrases (and even the what-is-it opinions are contradictory – is this a comedy or a thriller?). And what’s with that mention of “historical references”? Isn’t this supposed to be set in the future?
Specifics are particularly difficult to come up with for a short-short query. You have 100,000-plus words of plots, subplots, characters, setting, theme, and overall hard work; when you start trying to sum it up, everything seems important and it’s easy to get tangled up in trying to fit it all in. The more that goes in, though, the harder it is to make it clear how things tie together (and there isn’t room in this kind of query for any explanation – it all has to be obvious from context).
Providing comparisons to well-known writers and stories can be useful and effective in this kind of short-short summary, but showing off your knowledge of obscure writers, poets, and TV shows isn’t going to win you points (especially if they are so obscure that the editor isn’t familiar with them). Using obscure references doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look as if you don’t know which books or authors were and are important in whatever field or genre you are trying to sell your book to.
Next, a short-short pitch is not the place to be talking about your research or your credentials, unless they are both really impressive and directly relevant. “I have a Ph.d.” is neither. “I have a Nobel Prize in economics” would certainly be impressive, but since it isn’t directly relevant to this particular story, it still wouldn’t belong in this particular query. “I have six novels in print and my last novel was Number One on the New York Times Bestseller List for six weeks,” on the other hand, is impressive and relevant to pretty much any novel query.
Finally, a short-short query isn’t a teaser. Yes, you are trying to get the editor intrigued and interested, but you want to do it by giving him/her more information, as clearly as possible. So here’s my revised version:
I have just finished my 100,000 word novel, The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. When manic grad student Linda Anybody accepts a research request from a purple monkey, she quickly finds herself on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy. Pursued by the Evil Overlord, Linda struggles to find allies among space mermaids, living rocks, and other aliens; to succeed, she has to face her own lack of drive and commitment. The final battle in which Linda’s forces unexpectedly defeat the Evil Minions and save the universe is a cross between Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft. Would you be interested in looking at it?
Sincerely, The Writer